Th 93339

Your most valuable worker!

May 1, 2002
She performs every task in her job description and then looks for more ways to help your practice. Who is she? Read on!

Mary Ellen Psaltis

She performs every task in her job description and then looks for more ways to help your practice. Who is she? Read on!

She's your favorite employee. Not only does she perform every task in her job description, she often finds things that need doing - and then she does them. You trust her with financial transactions, confidential phone calls to patients, and making decisions. She's an excellent sounding board, listens carefully to your business concerns and usually understands your point of view. You've been known to leave the office together, have dinner together and then end up at your place. And why not? She's your wife!

From your position, everything looks great. However, this job has its price. Gaining awareness of some of the multiple issues that can swirl around your spouse might heighten your appreciation of the scope of work she does, as well as help you work together to create the results you both are striving to achieve.

The field of dentistry welcomes more women practitioners every year. There also are men who are hygenists, front-office workers, and chairside assistants. However, a more common occurrence is the male dentist with a staff of primarily, often exclusively, women. It is this chemistry on which this article focuses.

Overall, the wife's activity in the office supports the success of the practice. Let's take a look at the roles she might manage and their implications for the dentist, the staff, and the practice.

Sounding board

With a wife who works full time in the office, the dentist has someone he can talk to and share his concerns about any aspect of the practice - scheduling, employees, payroll, patients, repairs, and equipment. Since she works in the practice, the spouse can provide accurate analysis, honest feedback, and careful consideration of your ideas and concerns based on her own personal observations and experience.

For example, employees often find it easier to bounce ideas off the wife before bringing their ideas to "the dentist." The suggestion can be made in a casual way during other conversations, knowing that the wife's feedback is important when it comes to what happens next. If the wife really likes the idea, she might deliver it herself, giving it more credence and power. Or, if she thinks it's a poor idea or badly timed, it might go no further.

The scenario I've just described is often appropriate for an office manager. However, since the dentist's wife frequently is the office manager, her more encompassing relationship with "the boss" makes talking to her a more direct line to the top. Employees may come to her with a variety of issues or ideas - personal concerns, problems with other employees, uniform changes, or scheduling conflicts. Compared to the dentist, the spouse may be more available, a more interested listener, and provide more appropriate support to the employee. Many of these conversations will begin and end with the spouse ... and never even make it to the dentist!

Office manager

As mentioned above, one of the most typical positions for a spouse working in a dental office is that of office manager. This position oversees everything except the actual dentistry. The office manager's position encompasses finances, personnel, reading the mail ... and taking out the garbage! This is great news for the dentist. He can do what he has been trained to do in the back, and she can take care of everything in the front office.

The women with whom I spoke to for this article were proud to be invested in the progress of the practice. Rarely does an employee work with equal commitment and intensity as that of the practice owner. Your wife is an owner, too, and it shows! The dentist whose wife works in the office has someone he can truly count on. For the other employees, a myriad of possibilities - and concerns - exist when it comes to the boss's wife working alongside them. Since she's married to the boss, can they confide in her? Whose side is she really on? Is her attention to detail due to the fact that she's the boss' wife or that she's just obsessive and/or critical? Is she really qualified for the job she holds? Many spouses have college educations and higher degrees, but employees and people outside the practice may assume that she got the job because she is the boss's wife. Some spouses feel the need to be extremely competent in the job to allay suspicions of underqualification.

Setting an example

You notice your wife looks lovely each morning. That's nice; she probably does. But it goes way beyond being clean and courteous. It's no secret that people look at people ... and women definitely look at each other. The added element as the dentist's wife magnifies the level of scrutiny. Your employees are checking out her clothes, figuring out where she might have purchased them, noticing her jewelry, her makeup, her hair style, and her shoes. Is she too fat or too thin? These add up to a reflection of her own personal tastes and values, which, in turn, reflects back to the dentist. Endless judgments are made about materialistic spending, success, and values. None of this analyzing is bad or wrong, but ask a dental wife if she knows that she has been "checked out." Believe me, she knows!

Getting respect

The dentist has earned respect by completing dental school, perhaps additional specialty training, and then opening an office. These are significant accomplishments. Many wives attended college with their husbands, held jobs, had and cared for children, and worked side by side with their spouses to open the office. Many have earned their own degrees. But when they work in the office, an odd thing happens. There is a pervasive, but quiet, attitude that she's "the dentist's wife." Undesirable connotations include "She married him for his money" or "She's not as smart as he is." It is not unusual for people to express surprise when they find out the wife has an MBA, a business degree, or a career totally outside of dentistry. When patients come to your office, the dentist's path is clear: University diplomas, dental, and specialty degrees are all displayed on the walls and the office is open. The spouse's path is conspicuously unclear. Did she help him through dental school? Did she recently marry him? Does she have a degree? Does she have anything better to do? If she worked in someone else's dental office, these questions wouldn't come up. But whether asked aloud or not, these thoughts go through people's heads when she works at her husband's office.

Additionally, the dentist is on the payroll, meaning he gets a regular check. In many cases, the wife takes her financial rewards through her husband's paycheck or by way of the most advantageous tax plan. Wives have told me they were satisfied with this arrangement, but it is not the same as employment elsewhere. Ironically, when a wife is paid an hourly or monthly wage, employees become disgruntled about the possibility that her salary was cutting into their bonuses.

Working with other women

A team of female employees has strong chemistry. The male dentist may be - or may choose to be - clueless about the intricacies of these relationships, but your wife will be in the midst of it. In my experience and from information from interviews, men tend to work alone fine and don't mind working in "packs." The guys can hurl insults, get loud, posture, get over it ... and forget it! Women, on the other hand, tend to accumulate information, develop cliques, withhold feelings, and bring in an array of emotions to any situation. They have greater concern for relationships, uniform colors, child care, and lunch. Woman are the great nurturers of the world, but they can be very mean. On any given day at work, someone was awake the night before with a sick child, has PMS, and a list of things to do a home. She comes to work, but it's not the only thing on her mind. Women employees are taking stock of who comes in late, who is cleaning more trays, whose fingernails are too long, or who is grumpy. Dentists can choose to keep out of the fray and let their employees work these issues out among themselves. Your wife, however, cannot distance herself as easily. The importance of having clearly written job descriptions, as well as office policies, will help take your wife out of the middle of many of these situations.

Whose in charge?

Few things will create as much destruction as a couple at cross purposes. Employees figure out quickly who to ask, who to agitate, and who to activate in order to get their way. As a couple, it is essential for the dentist and his wife to have an understanding of who is in charge of what - in other words, where (or with whom) a decision ultimately lies. As the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into years, habits get formed. Make sure your employees know who is in charge of what.

Communicating with each other

The last patient walks out the door. For the dentist, this might mean time to change clothes and get out of the office. For the wife, it might mean quiet relief to get a few more things done. What happens when you leave the office? Do you leave your work at the office or do you take some issues home? Since people have such different styles and needs, it is important to predetermine how and where you will deal with office business. One couple has lunch with each other most days. This is their time to talk about any office-related topic. They don't do it at home. One couple reserves time on Friday afternoon after the last patient. Their conversation takes place at the office so they don't have to bring it home. It doesn't really matter when you have these meetings; it only matters that you have them.

Get professional advice

The two of you may know enough about dentistry and business to get along, but it is not realistic to believe you know enough about everything. Investing time and money into people outside your practice can help you reach your goals, and, in the long run, save you time and money. Tax advisers, financial planners, attorneys, interior designers, and practice-management consultants are a few outside advisers to consider. Be sure to find responsible, trustworthy, and compatible people and agencies. Your best referrals might come from your local dental community.

Have a life outside the office

Both of your lives are more than dentistry. Keep your business to the office or designated time and places. After that, let it go! Cultivate activities you like to do together and feel good about doing some things apart.

A repeating theme I heard from wives who work in the office was the satisfaction in their high investment in the overall success of the practice. By being a part of everyday business activities, they better understood financial and business matters, as well as finding satisfaction in adding their personal care and touch to running the practice's operations. They liked being able to check details, presenting pleasant and helpful services to the public, and being available to solve problems. They took great pride in the assistance they provided their spouses and often felt their dental mate was relieved about not having to deal with all of the practice's details.

Your spouse has value like no other. Her attention to the practice is equal to yours. She supports your office in innumerable ways - keeping the business aspect current, taking care of your special needs patients, overseeing details, paying the bills, etc.

Your support of her is equally as important. Appreciate the circumstances in which she works. Incorporate job descriptions and office policies into your office, set up a system with her to discuss office business, get outside help when necessary, and enjoy your lives outside the practice. One wife told me she believed that a spouse could make or break the practice. Check in with your most valuable employee. She'll appreciate it and you'll both enjoy the benefits.

About the cover:

Click here to enlarge image

The background on this month's cover is not a movie set; it's the scenic backyard of the Psaltis home - Dr. Greg Psaltis and his wife, Mary Ellen. Dr. Psaltis laughs, "When you come to visit, even though you're at our house, you feel like you're at a bed and breakfast." Both husband and wife are transplants to the Pacific Northwest - specifically, Olympia, Wash. - from the Midwest.

The Psaltis family is in the right part of the country for their hobbies of skiing and camping. Both enjoy traveling, and Mary Ellen practices yoga and lifts weights. "We each have a career that we use as a way to further values, quality of life, communication, and relationship issues."

Husband and wife are both speakers and writers. "In our seminars, we present the picture that people have a good life to discover. People tend to lose sight of what's important." Together, they sponsor and lead an annual couples' retreat called "Getting Closer and Staying Together," which is an enrichment weekend for couples who are looking for greater fulfillment in their relationship.

They stress communication skills and the importance of developing personal lifestyles that reflect an individual's values. The Psaltises explain, "This leads from self to spouse to family to community; there's a 'rippling outward.' The initial impact is on your household and your practice, working outward toward your community."

Dr. Psaltis has been practicing pediatric dentistry in Olympia for 21 years. His office sees 45 to 50 children per day. "In pediatric dentistry," he says, "it's important to understand what people are trying to say. Dealing with children in the dental office is not rocket science. I simply give positive feedback and employ methods parents can use at home."

Parents of infants are invited to a complimentary introductory office visit as soon as their child's first tooth erupts. The emphasis of this infant-care program is to provide information to parents so problems like early childhood caries can be avoided. A packet of materials given to parents answers questions they may have about teething, thumbsucking, dental emergencies, and more. The program has the support of local pediatricians and has been adopted by the Louisiana Dental Hygiene Association as a state-wide project.

Dr. Psaltis and his partner arrange to work one week on and one week off to create balance in their lives and enable them to pursue interests outside of dentistry. The partners employ what Dr. Psaltis calls a "highly delegated team" of 15 professionals. Washington state's dental practice laws allow auxiliaries freedom to perform many expanded duties in the practice setting.

Mary Ellen is involved in enrichment programs for children, volunteers extensively, is a Scout leader, and writes a regular column for their local newspaper, The Olympian.

Both are grateful for their lifestyle, gained through hard work. "We believe dentistry provides an opportunity for a life of abundance." And that's exactly what they share with others. All of the Psaltis' seminars, consulting services, and other programs are handled through their company, Psilent Productions.

The couple has a 10-year-old son, Kosta, and two children from a previous marriage - a daughter, Erica, 20, and a son, Reid, 18.

You may contact Greg and Mary Ellen Psaltis through

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